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Sri Lanka risks losing moral compass in vaccination policy

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By Jehan Perera

A government minister has pronounced that the vaccine alone may not resolve the Covid perhaps to comfort those who are not able to access the vaccine. For a similar reason another government minister has said that a second dose of vaccine may not be necessary to give effective protection from the coronavirus. Yet another minister has stated it may be possible to give a second vaccine that is different from the first and that research is underway in the country to ascertain this. There were high expectations when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected that the country would de-politicise its decision-making and a new era of expert decision-making would end the role of politicians in it. This would have reversed the downside of the constitutional change made in 1972 that elevated the power of elected politicians over the state bureaucracy to make decision-making more accountable to the people.

A half century later, even under the administration of a president of whom much has been expected, Sri Lanka runs the risk of becoming the laggard of South Asia even as it borrows dollars from India and now Bangladesh. The politicization of decision-making has cost the country heavily in a very visible way in terms of dealing with the coronavirus. Sri Lanka enjoyed initial success due to tough measures to implement a two-month lockdown last year implemented primarily by the security forces. The security forces also performed their intelligence function with skill, tracing those who had been infected and those who were their close contacts. But when politics took over it went downhill fast. The manner in which government ministers took on the concoctions of those who claimed metaphysical powers and knowledge that went beyond regular science was beyond belief.

The knowledge of the national universities and professional associations in those fields was set aside and politically-connected experts given pride of place. Why turmeric, an essential food item and a household antiseptic was singled out from all other spices to be banned and imports that were seized were burnt, has no rational explanation. In the case of the coronavirus, irrational belief in the occult meant that valuable time was lost. Sri Lanka failed to place the necessary orders for vaccines on time. It may be that as in the case of the ban on chemical fertilizers that was imposed on farmers with hardly any notice, there was a belief that the country could conserve its scarce foreign exchange by relying on indigenous knowledge. The price that is being paid today for irrationality is a heavy one. A minimum of 30 deaths, each one some family’s beloved, are reported each day along with close to 3000 new cases.

 

OVER 60 EXCLUDED

The country is going into its third week of lockdown that was imposed without giving the people sufficient notice to make alternative arrangements with regard to their livelihoods and food supplies.

The impact of political decision-making can also be seen in the priority lists that have emerged in practice to deal with the short supply of vaccines. The news media showed ugly scenes of chaos where elected politicians tried to override the expertise of medical personnel on duty at a Covid vaccination site to insist on their own priority list to meet the shortages. Decision have been made to prioritise the claims of certain categories of persons who have personal relations with decision-makers. This is indicative of the breakdown of the rule of law, which is not just any law, but law that is just. The most shocking omission from the priority list has been the neglect of those over the age of 60 which has not been the practice in countries that have given priority to life over other considerations.

A seminal article on this theme has been written by Dr T Jayasingam, professor of Botany and former Vice Chancellor of Eastern University. “It is shocking but true. 70% of the 801 (around 560) persons who had died of COVID until 10th May 2021, as per the Statistics by the Epidemiology Unit of Ministry of Health dated 10th May 2021 were above the age of 60. Most of them would have been people who had led careful lives to get to that point, only to be struck down by a virus that caught their government unprepared…There are about 18% of population above 60 years of age and death of 70% of that category is out of proportion. The need for vaccinating the over 60 years age category as done in other parts of the world was highlighted in the media from February 2021 onwards when the possibilities of vaccination was becoming a reality…” https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/who-has-the-right-to-priority-in-covid-protection/ Parliamentarians have been offered vaccination on a priority basis regardless of their age.

Older people might be less able to work and bring in income to the family and to the country. But they are the repositories of the country’s history and culture and the guides of the younger generations who risk losing their way in the rush to development sans values. It is important that these vulnerable groups are reached by the vaccination process because the protection of the most vulnerable is the sign of a civilized society. The death last week of Ven Baddegama Samitha, aged 68, of Covid- induced pneumonia is a great loss to the country at large. The Venerable monk was a committed socialist and non-violent activist who had to flee the country during the period of the JVP insurrection in the late 1980s when he was in the university. He went to England and obtained his university degree there and obtained a breadth of learning that he used in his political career. He was the first Buddhist monk to win election to parliament which he did on a socialist platform as a member of a left wing political party. He supported the peace movement and was a champion of inter-ethnic harmony.

 

CHANGE PRACTICE

Covid also took away former Speaker W J M Lokubandara and TNA MP Thurairatnasingam. Another less well known person who died of Covid during the last week was Sunil Jayaweera, aged 60, chairman of the Panduwasnuwara Pradeshiya Sabha whom I met in April this year. This was on the occasion of the opening of an inter-religious harmony centre in a predominantly Muslim village in Kurunegala district.

He had come along with other dignitaries from the area, including Buddhist monks and the police as a gesture of inter-ethnic solidarity. He spoke a few words on the occasion. Among the points he made was that the younger generation had fewer inter-community linkages than those of older generations. This may be due to the changing nature of society and the economy where people spend less time with other people and more time with machines or doing narrow and specialized jobs. He showed the value of the older generation that the Covid virus is taking away from us.

When I called the Moulavi at the village who had invited me to inquire about Chairman Jayaweera’s untimely death, he said that several people in the village too had succumbed to Covid. He said that his relative had refused to go to hospital until it was too late. The issue of Muslim burial in their home areas is important to Muslims so they prefer to take the risk and stay at home rather than having their bodies cremated or sent to faraway Ottamavedi in the east which is the only place the government has permitted burial of bodies of Covid infected people to take place. With Covid spreading swiftly across country regardless of the ban on burials of Covid bodies, the government needs to reconsider its insistence on cremation which is a harassment to Muslims, outside of WHO guidelines and is not found in other parts of the world.

Instead of digging in its heels, the government also needs to reconsider its policy of not giving priority in vaccination to those in the age group above 60. Now more than at any other time, when the country lurches from crisis to crisis, whether in term of how to deal with its economic debt, the crisis in agriculture due to the fertilizer ban which is causing unrest amongst farmers, or the role of China in Sri Lanka, there is a need to safeguard the repositories of history and culture to the extent possible. The politics of decision making which is led by non-experts in the field of health needs to give way to the opinion of experts who adhere to international practice. The way to restore the waning spirits of the people is to show commitment to the defeat of Covid. Focusing on boosting incomes through bringing in Ukrainian tourists, continuing with mega-highway projects or even Port City itself, is no substitute for saving lives.



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COVID-19: Contradicting caregivers, confused civilians, complementary curatives

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by Dr. M.A. Mohamed Saleem

“It is more important to consider other ancient medical traditions prior to the knowledge we have nowadays” – Hippocrates

Since December 2019 COVID-19 has engulfed all countries. More than 100 viruses of this family produce respiratory cold-like symptoms. Any virus can gain greater pathogenicity and cause the manifestation of varying symptoms but, people also recover quickly. Over the last two decades the world has witnessed Coronaviral behavioural changes, designated SARS-CoV in 2003 and MERS-CoV in 2010/11. Within two years however, SARS and MERS disappeared.

COVID-19 caused by SARS-CoV2 (which broke out in 2019), is claimed to have jumped from bats in Wuhan, China. According to virologists such a sudden viral evolutionary jump from animal to human is uncommon as it takes a long-time span to occur naturally. This virus could have been released or accidentally escaped from a lab and evidence seems to suggest that Wuhan Institute of Virology and Wuhan University Centre for Animal Experiment, in collaboration with the US-based EcoHealth Alliance, were engaged in a “gain-of-function research”.

Why would anyone take a less virulent virus from the wild and make it more virulent and powerful by infusing gain of functions knowing its potential to spread fast and cause adverse effects?

A COVID-19 health crisis has been ‘foretold’ at a conference in the USA years before its actual breakout in December 2019. According to another report, the World Bank had supported WITS (World Integrated Trade Solutions) Test Kits, labelled COVID-19 Test Kits, being exported in 2017. Although this trade entry has now been withdrawn the suspicion of a well-planned and coordinated health crisis lingers on.

Contradicting Caregivers:

Health policy-makers and caregivers have been giving mixed signals all along starting with acknowledging COVID-19 a problem. Initially, some considered the problem short lived and would pass like a seasonal cold, while others, led by the WHO, launched massive international propaganda to alert the public about the potential threat and laid out strategies to be followed to mitigate virus transmission.

It appears that there was a concerted effort to raise people’s fear and vulnerability to the virus. Those deemed infected, along with other members of the household, were quarantined in designated camps and a total lockdown enforced to confine people in their dwellings. As safety measures, wearing face masks to prevent free passage of 0.06 – 0.14 micron sized COVID-19 viral particles, but masks only help recirculate air trapped within), and maintaining one-meter distance between individuals were made mandatory. Even the asymptomatic were claimed to host the deadly virus, mortally frightening and compelling the masses to undergo Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests to ascertain their health status.

It is claimed that the actual virus Sars-Cov-2 has never been isolated and purified and therefore, it is impossible to test for it and discern between different types of pathogens. Yet, the WHO prescribed using the PCR test to ascertain COVID-19 cases. As PCR readings are taken at an elevated reaction thresholds, even dying cell chromosomal RNA fragments become visible, mostly producing false positive results, indicating large numbers of people who did not have the virus. Nonetheless, all tests were included to project higher infection rates which further raised people’s fear of contracting the disease.

Some healthcare workers have also challenged hospital admissions and hospital certification of deaths. After declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, anyone admitted to or dying in hospitals, even with other pre-existing or acquired condition(s), was listed as a COVID-19 victim, allegedly to inflate casualty numbers. Autopsies were not allowed on ‘COVID’ victims but where it was performed, in defiance of the official position, no evidence of COVID-19 was found suggesting that the death had occurred due to some other cause. Moreover, the annual number of deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic have not been significantly different from previous years. Nonetheless, consolidated mortality figures were used to project the severity of COVID-19 and emphasise the urgency for a quick fix.

Surprisingly, it is reported that the WHO did not allow, in the early stages of the pandemic, the use of any drug available at that time. However, health experts in many countries claim to have successfully used drugs like hydro chloroquine and Ivermectin as preventives and therapeutics to treat COVID-19 patients while the WHO kept insisting on the continuation of precautionary protocols until vaccines arrived. There is now a growing opinion that infection could have been halted had the use of Ivermectin (a drug on the WHO’s list of essential drugs and has been in use for a number of years) been allowed from the beginning: A plea that is now being taken to the Indian courts.

By March 2020 the whole world came to a standstill, gripped by an unprecedented fear of impending doom and helplessness. Anything that offered a ray of hope was welcome: An ideal condition to try out experimental vaccines in the pretext of emergency use, disregarding the danger warnings from very reputable scientists against using untested vaccines and short circuiting the lengthy vaccine development and certification process taken before public use. Emergency use also provided the legal cover for manufacturers against any adverse effects of vaccines.

Confused Civilians:

Confusing is the manner in which the experimental vaccines are being pushed as the only way out of the pandemic without providing people information on research and clinical data integrity, including ingredients used in the vaccines, how and for how long they were tested, how effective they are and the duration of their efficacy and possible side effects, and implications to different age groups when vaccinated. These have now become hotly discussed topics.

The unanswered question is why a vaccine is necessary when the effectiveness of vaccines rolled out ranges between 62 and 95 percent, whereas the reported survival rate of those infected and cured by age groups are: zero to 19 years 99.99 percent, 20 to 49 years 99.98 percent, 50 to 69 years 99.5, over 70 years 94.6 percent, and given that conventional wisdom has always favoured acquiring natural immunity as the best form of defense. Recently a Pfizer scientist observed that immunity gained through exposure to the virus is better as efficacy of a vaccine is generally judged by the severity of illness and mortality among vaccinated. In the case of diphtheria, the death rate was more than 90 percent and even a 50 percent effective vaccine was then considered a major success.

When hundreds of unvaccinated and fully vaccinated people in Massachusetts, USA, were tested, 75 percent of the infections were among the vaccinated. Recently, in Israel, 60 percent of the hospitalised were fully vaccinated, leading to a conclusion that the fully vaccinated can equally harbour and transmit the virus as the unvaccinated and that the vaccines only lessen clinical systems and not a cure for the disease as was the case with previous vaccines the world had known.

Since discovery, vaccines have had a chequered safety history. Anticipating challenges, the USA had created a Vaccine Adverse Effects Reporting System (VAERS). Over the years, many complaints of damage resulted in vaccines being withdrawn and compensation paid. According to VAERS a total of 726,963 adverse reactions to COVID-19 jabs, including 15,386 deaths, have been reported and similar adverse cases are also constantly being reported in other countries.

Mixed signals from caregivers is highlighted in recommending the use of gene-interfering Pfizer/biotech vaccine for children in spite of some reputable immunologists calling to question its suitability for that age group who are still in their formative stages. Recommending the use of different vaccines (without knowledge of long term effects by combining vaccines) if the same vaccine is not available for the follow up jab, seems difficult to comprehend. The allegation that some vaccines, like Pfizer, contains poisonous graphene oxide has not been refuted.

Why should reputed scientists world over, backed by equally strong scientific evidence of vaccine side effects, calling for a pause and review of the vaccination programme face censorship? This is the greatest puzzle for civilians.

Complementary curatives:

Complementary medicines consider clinical symptoms as response to restore body health. They attempt to maintain a strong immune system as a blanket barrier to fend off ‘foreign’ objects from gaining access to internal organs and intervene before the onset of diseases. According to traditional Chinese medicine emotions, food habits and lifestyle strongly influence the manner of re-establishing internal energy balance that will determine the progress of healing.

In this era of fast food and destruction of natural resources beyond their replenishing capacity to support ‘modernising’ lifestyles, a large percentage of the people are immunocompromised. A vaccine’s safety and effectiveness is determined by the type of immunodeficiency and degree of immunosuppression. As each person is different and immunodeficiency can also vary over time, any decision to recommend a particular vaccine should depend on a case-by-case analysis of the risks and benefits and cannot be centrally dictated.

Unlike many western countries Sri Lanka has established equally effective institutions of complementary healthcare systems: Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha and homeopathy. When faced with large infectious breakouts like dengue, Chikungunya and the current COVID-19, these alternative systems can contribute immensely with curatives. Unfortunately, such health expertise has been sidelined when forming COVID-19 health advisory teams. This need not imply that the country is deriding the importance of complementary cures.

Several countries have reported very healthy people developing blood clots and going into cardiac arrest after receiving some kind of COVID-19 vaccination. They also claim fast waning of vaccine efficacy, few weeks after taking the jab. Western medicine cannot explain the reasons behind these, but only continue to recommend more booster vaccine doses.

The final evaluation of vaccines, rolled out under the emergency phase, is targeted for early 2023. No one knows what the final vaccination regimes are going to be against possibly recurring viral mutations and health hazards. Many countries, including Sri Lanka, cannot follow such an expensive and uncertain vaccination process, mainly dictated by profit-making pharmaceutical groups. Therefore, the search for alternative non-synthetic remedies and natural, healthy food habits to maintain natural immunity are given a renewed emphasis everywhere. It is unfortunate that in Sri Lanka this is not even a talking point and those who could are left sidelined.

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How do we market Sri Lanka globally as a unique country – green socio-economic system

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By Jayampathy Molligoda, Chairman, SLTB.

Introduction:

One consignment of ‘Potassium Chloride’ fertiliser arrived on September 14, presumably, to be applied for the paddy sector. The potassium chloride is not an organic material. However, the input materials approved for organic farming need not only be organic. Potassium Chloride is a mineral and not organic, but it’s permissible to be used for organic farming under international and SLS standards. Even some chemicals such as copper based chemical mixtures are allowed to be used for organic farming under international standards.

Tea sub sector:

As for the tea sector, what we have been saying is the government policy change as per Cabinet decision on 27th April, will enable us to arrest the tea land degradation and improve soil quality and thus moving towards green agriculture- plantation economy. As stated in the Cabinet paper, the state policy change is ‘migrating into green socio- economic pattern; this can be termed ‘regenerative agriculture’ or the green economic system. One of the milestones in the Tea strategy 2030 road map is improving soil quality and air and water quality through an integrated soil fertility management and balanced nutrient management.

Nevertheless, SLTB officials are closely watching and monitoring the entire tea supply chain – five months have lapsed from the government policy change prohibiting fertiliser imports and up to end September, a detailed scientific analysis on statistics of production, auction sales data and physical inspection of factories/estates have not revealed any major drop in quantity, however there will be issues if no nutrients are provided at the earliest.

Tea Production:

Cumulative tea production for the period January to September 2021 shows an increase of 16% respectively against last year.

Addressing tea growers’ concerns:

In fact, the tea production to date is higher than the average of the corresponding period during the last five years. This shows that good weather conditions,especially water and sunlight, are equally important, along with providing required nutrients. Therefore, it is important to address the adverse effects of ‘climate change’ through mitigating and adaptation strategies. The confusion here is that the majority of the people have misunderstood the word ‘organic’ in the government proposal, thinking the stakeholders are required to immediately convert tea production and exports into organic. We need to educate the farmers and there should not be loss of income for efficient growers even during the transitional period. At the same time, malpractices and under-utilisation of land and over use of inputs without following GAPs need to be arrested by the authorities. The name of the game is ‘green agricultural system’ as stated in the said Cabinet paper and the President’s address at the General Assembly, United Nations, recently – green energy, green agriculture-this is how I understood the vision.

The positive feature is the emergence of R&D initiatives mooted by the tea sector hitherto not happened and the admission that there has been an excessive usage of chemical fertiliser and decline in yields. There has been hardly any soil analysis undertaken during the last couple of years and lack of site- specific fertiliser application. Scientists have concluded that beneficial microbes in the soil are disturbed with excessive application of chemicals.

In order to address farmers concerns and genuine grievances, there is nothing wrong in using nano-hybrid chemically bonded, ‘slow release’ fertiliser until we are self-sufficient in the production and supply of ‘organic’ fertiliser. Based on approvals received from the government, the private sector importers have already been allocated ordering sufficient quantities of Ammonium sulphate last week (under Import control licence scheme-07/05/21) to be mixed with minerals such as ERP and potassium for tea estates. The production and supply of organic fertiliser is also increasing.

However, if they don’t provide with sufficient N and K, there will be issues both in quantity and quality. Another issue for exporters is lack of shipping space and shortage in containers more than other Issues- that’s being sorted out.

Conclusion:

My understanding is the vision of The Head of the State is; How do we reposition and market ‘Sri Lanka’ globally as a unique country? As for Ceylon Tea marketing strategy- how do we position ‘Ceylon Tea’ in the minds of discerning tea consumers globally as a unique product? The State policy change should be viewed in that perspective. Our ‘Ceylon Tea’ Brand story; the cleanest tea in the world is being reinforced with this state policy change: ‘green socio- economic pattern’. This is on par with the Tea strategy road map 2030 prepared by CTTA, the private sector apex body for tea industry, in consultation with Tea Board, Ministry and other stakeholders. Let us work together to realise true potential to obtain higher net foreign exchange, so that the benefits will trickle down to the farmers in accordance with the Tea Control Act No. 51 of 1957. The way forward strategy should be communicated to everyone.

 

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100% Organic Agriculture: A costly experiment leading to National disaster

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by Professor W.A.J.M. De Costa
Senior Professor and Chair of Crop Science, University of Peradeniya

Five months have elapsed since the government’s, in all probability the President’s, decision to ban inorganic fertiliser and synthetic agrochemicals to immediately transform Sri Lanka’s agriculture into totally ‘organic’ (or ‘green’ as the President referred to in his address at the SL Army’s 72nd Anniversary last week). At present, almost the entire agriculture sector is in crisis and the farming community is facing uncertainty at this crucial period of the year when the major crop-growing season is about to begin. Therefore, it is imperative that the President reconsider his decision to avert a national disaster. A recollection of the events leading to the President’s decision and its aftermath shows the extent of confusion that reigns, the muddled thinking of those in charge and the consequent mismanagement of this issue.

Background to the Decision

According to the President, the decision to ban the use of inorganic fertiliser and synthetic agrochemicals (which include pesticides and herbicides), was taken to safeguard peoples’ health and protect the environment. A close examination of scientific evidence, available in Sri Lanka (or worldwide), has failed to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between inorganic fertiliser use and any of the major human health issues prevalent in Sri Lanka (e.g. Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Aetiology). A similar conclusion can be made on synthetic agrochemicals as well. While excessive use of fertiliser and agrochemicals could lead to human health and environmental issues, available statistics on fertiliser and agrochemical use in different countries show that their use in Sri Lankan agriculture cannot be categorised as ‘excessive’. Therefore, it is clear that the decision to ‘go 100% organic overnight’ was based on ideology and wishful thinking rather than on solid, scientific evidence.

Was there a clear plan in place prior to taking the decision?

All actions of the government, since the implementation of the fertiliser and agrochemical ban, clearly demonstrates a complete absence of an alternative plan prior to the decision. A major decision, such as this, necessitated a comprehensive analysis of its costs in terms of potential reduction of crop yields, its economic and social implications on farmer livelihoods, national food supply and the entire social fabric. The perceived environmental and human health benefits should have been weighed against the risks of disrupting the food production and supply chain and the ensuing social instability.

Furthermore, there should have been a rational evaluation of the alternative strategies (e.g. local organic fertiliser production) with regard to their practical feasibility, time frames available, effectiveness and cost. However, it is abundantly clear that none of the above has taken place prior to the decision. Unfortunately, this is another example of a major policy decision being taken without a rational, scientifically-valid analysis of either the current status of the issue or possible consequences of the decision.

Stakeholder response in the immediate aftermath of the decision

The stakeholder responses to the decision have fallen in to three broad categories. A minority consisting of hard-core organic agriculture advocates and environmentalists voiced their approval, arguing that: (a) protection of human health and environment should take immediate precedence over any concerns about reduced crop yields and consequent shortages of food supplies; (b) a gradual transition to 100% organic agriculture would be difficult to implement because of farmer preference for inorganic fertiliser and agrochemicals when they are available. Hence, it was argued that their total ban was needed to implement organic agriculture. For example, the highly-influential Buddhist monk, Ven. Omalpe Sobhditha Thera, who is often a strong critic of the present regime, advised the government not to ‘take a step backwards’ on the fertiliser and agrochemical ban.

The second category of responses came from a majority of the general public, including a fair proportion of agriculturists, who accepted the decision to go ‘100% organic’ as a ‘good’ decision in principle, but one that should have been implemented over time and in phases. This group assumes that it is possible to fulfil the national food requirement by 100% organic agriculture at some future date (by which time the national population also will have increased further).

In contrast, a majority of agricultural scientists and practitioners who are knowledgeable about the science of crop production based on the principles of agronomy, soil science, plant nutrition and plant protection is of the opinion that 100% organic agriculture will not totally fulfil the country’s food requirement, either now or in the future, but can be practiced on a limited scale for niche markets (as is the case worldwide). The majority of farmers, in their conventional wisdom gained from several generations of farming, also comes to the same conclusion that national-scale crop production, in an economically-viable scale, is not possible with 100% organic agriculture. This constitutes the third category of stakeholder response. For example, the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Peradeniya, which consists of more than 110 academics with expertise in different sub-disciplines and specialities of Agriculture, in a communication to the President and the Government, advised identification, based primarily on soil fertility status, of specific areas in Sri Lanka, for possible gradual introduction of the practices of organic agriculture to pilot-test the feasibility of transition to organic agriculture in the future. This position also underlies the fact that 100% organic agriculture across the whole country and its agriculture sector is not a viable option.

It is hoped that events in the five-month period since the decision, especially during the past month, will have shifted the responses of some stakeholders from category one to category two and from category two to category three.

What has the government done or tried to do since the implementation of the ban?

Local production of organic fertiliser

Everything the government has done or tried to do during the last five months shows its lack of preparation and inability to address the issues and challenges ensuing from the ban. The widely-held assumption among the advocates of the immediate and total ban of inorganic fertiliser was that crop nutrient requirements on a nation-wide scale could be supplied with organic fertiliser, prepared locally. There was a proliferation of programmes, mainly in local authorities and farms maintained by various government institutions including the military, to produce ‘compost’, an organic fertiliser with generally low and variable nutrient concentration, mainly from solid waste, animal manure and crop residue. Because of the rush to produce organic fertiliser on a scale sufficient to meet the national demand within a few months, none of the locally-produced organic fertiliser is tested for its quality in terms of the presence of required nutrients (e.g. nitrogen) and soil amendments (e.g. organic matter) or the absence of potential harmful agents. In this regard, the presence of heavy metals, such as Lead, Cadmium and Arsenic at levels above their tolerable thresholds is a distinct possibility because municipal solid waste, which is a common source material for compost production by local authorities, could contain material having the harmful heavy metals mentioned above.

Now, at the beginning of the Maha cropping season, which is the major season in Sri Lanka, it has become abundantly clear that local production capacity of organic fertiliser, irrespective of its quality, is inadequate to meet the national-scale demand for plant nutrients of crops to be grown.

Importation of organic fertiliser

The discussions that took place among officials of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Department of Agriculture and the advocates of organic agriculture revealed the fact that even those who strongly advocated and advised the President to implement the ban did not have an evidence-based figure on the per hectare organic fertiliser requirement to calculate its national requirement. As a result, the government’s position on importing organic fertiliser was shifting and evasive in the immediate aftermath of the ban, with the Cabinet Minister of Agriculture making contradictory statements, both in and outside Parliament. When the realisation finally dawned on the government officials that local organic fertiliser production will not be sufficient for the coming Maha season, there has been a bungled attempt to import a consignment of organic fertiliser from China, which is still continuing. This is despite the samples of this consignment twice-failing the tests for the presence of microorganisms.

The threat of introducing foreign microorganisms to Sri Lankan soils via imported organic fertiliser

At the very outset of the ban on inorganic fertiliser, independent experts had warned of this very significant danger of introducing foreign microorganisms to Sri Lankan soils, which could lead to a myriad of complex ecological processes with potential to disrupt the existing soil microbial community and set-off adverse environmental consequences. Unfortunately, this well-meant advice of experts fell on deaf ears. The importance of protecting the native microbial population in a soil cannot be over-emphasised as the microbes play a pivotal role in many soil processes which sustain and regenerate its fertility. One of the major critiques of the large-scale use of inorganic fertiliser has been their modification of the natural soil microbial communities.

Importation of liquid organic fertiliser

When the attempt to import solid organic fertiliser from China was stalled (may be temporarily as attempts to import it are still reported to be continuing behind the scenes), there are reports that organic fertiliser in liquid form, a nitrogen extract according to the Cabinet Minister of Agriculture, has been cleared for importation from India. A loophole in the existing regulations has enabled importation of liquid fertiliser which only requires to be free from ‘harmful’ microorganisms whereas solid organic fertiliser needs to be free from all microorganisms. The term ‘harmful’ microorganisms has no scientific validity in the broader context of environmental microbiology. This is because a microorganism that is categorised as ‘harmless’ at the time of its introduction to a foreign environment could easily become ‘harmful’ by fast proliferation in the absence of the ecological controls (e.g. natural enemies, environmental controls, etc.) that were present in its original environment to regulate its population within ‘harmless’ limits. Therefore, application of imported liquid organic fertilisers has the same level of threat to the local soil microbial population that the solid organic fertiliser poses.

It should be noted that if liquid nitrogen fertiliser is added to the soil, it is more likely to be leached down with rain or irrigation water and possibly pollute ground water than even the solid inorganic nitrogen fertiliser, thus nullifying a major argument for ‘going 100% organic immediately’. It is possible to apply the important liquid organic fertiliser to the plants as a ‘foliar application’. However, as in the soil, such an application poses a threat to the microbial communities that are present on plant leaves (called the phyllosphere microorganisms) by the foreign ‘harmless’ microorganisms, which are allowed to be applied along with the imported liquid fertiliser. A substantial amount of research done by Sri Lankan as well as foreign scientists has shown that phyllosphere microbes provide protection against a wide-range plant pathogens (i.e. disease-causing organisms such as fungi, bacteria, phytoplasma, viruses and viroids) by various mechanisms and thereby provides natural protection to agricultural crops from a range of plant diseases. A possible disruption of the phyllosphere microbial community by foliar application of imported liquid organic fertiliser containing foreign microbes which are perceived to be ‘harmless’ could potentially increase the risk of disease outbreaks in major crops which will be impossible to control, especially in the absence of synthetic agrochemicals.

Crucially, in a crop such as tea where leaf quality is of paramount importance, foliar application of imported organic fertiliser containing foreign ‘non-harmful’ microorganisms could alter the leaf biochemistry in such a way to disrupt the key characters of made tea such as its flavour and strength. The negative impact that this will have on the Sri Lankan tea industry, which in these COVID-19-affected times has been one of the few assured sources of valuable foreign exchange, will be incalculable and may well be irreversible as a market lost cannot be easily recovered.

Furthermore, foliar application of liquid organic fertiliser would not bring any benefit to the soil. Application of solid organic fertilisers, most of which are really ‘organic soil amendments’ rather than ‘organic fertilisers’, improves the soil physical properties which are important to sustain and regenerate soil fertility. Accordingly, apart from increasing the threat of crop disease incidence by introducing foreign microoganisms, promotion of foliar application of organic fertiliser will not contribute to the government’s perceived benefits of ‘going 100% organic with immediate effect’.

This bungled attempt to import organic fertiliser, in solid as well as liquid forms, clearly demonstrates the government’s muddled thinking in its rationale, planning and implementation of this grand scheme of becoming the first country to go 100% organic in its agriculture. It is telling that Ven. Omalpe Sobhitha Thero, who was a strong advocate of this scheme a few months ago, went on record saying that in view of the clear and present dangers of importing organic fertilisers, it would be better to go back to the inorganic fertilisers.

Intervention of the Chinese Embassy and undermining of DoA officers

The statement put out by the Embassy of the Peoples’ Republic of China, a friendly country providing an enormous amount of aid to Sri Lanka, casting doubt on the validity of scientific procedures adopted by the National Plant Quarantine Service (NPQS), which is part of the Department of Agriculture (DoA), in detecting the presence of microorganisms (i.e. bacteria belong to the genera Bacillus and Erwinia, which contain several bacterial species which are enormously harmful to agricultural crops, both in the field and after harvesting) in the samples of solid organic fertilizer to be imported from a Chinese manufacturer, raises several points of concern. Even though the Embassy claimed that a minimum period of six days is required for detection of the above microorganisms, Sri Lankan scientists with expertise in plant microbiology and plant pathology, pointed out that the microbiological and pathogenicity tests required to make scientifically-valid conclusions on the presence of the above organisms can be done within three days. It is notable that none of the higher authorities in the Ministry of Agriculture or the Department of Agriculture came out to defend the validity of the testing procedure and the professional integrity of research officers of the NPQS who carried it out.

Instead, conspiracy theories (e.g. contamination of samples by injecting microorganisms in to them) and blatant threats of investigation by the CID by the Cabinet Minister of Agriculture himself sought to intimidate DoA research officers and undermine their work. When the second set of samples, which was reportedly brought under Police protection, also failed the microbiological tests at the NPQS, there is now talk of bringing a third set of samples to be tested. It appears that the government is bent on somehow importing this consignment of organic fertilizer from China. One wonders whether the statement put out by the Chinese Embassy envisaging resolution of this issue for the ‘benefit’ of both parties is a ‘veiled threat’ or not.

In the broader context, this represents another instance where the Sri Lankan government and its institutions have failed to support its scientific and research community whose work, performed with enormous difficulty in severely under-resourced infrastructure, provides the framework and solid facts (instead of wishful thinking based on speculation) for effective policy formulation.

(To be continued)

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